Recently at the end of one of our Mindful Morning practices at River House in Ottawa, we spoke about uncertainty, the fleeting nature of our motivation, our bodily feelings and that despite our practice, we still mess up with the people in our lives! I guess we had the good sense to inject some humour and realize that no one will handle every event in his life perfectly. We can’t please all our friends and relatives. Our children will get jobs out of town and move away. Our friends will move to Victoria and the dog will die. No one is to blame when events leave us unsatisfied. The Buddha summarized life’s inescapably fickle course so beautifully:
The Radiant Buddha said:
Regard this fleeting world like this:
Like stars fading and vanishing at dawn,
Like bubbles on a fast moving stream,
Like morning dewdrops evaporating on blades of grass, Like a candle flickering in a strong wind,
echoes, mirages, and phantoms, hallucinations, And like a dream.
The Eight Similes of Illusion
Life happens beyond our control, experience is all fleeting, and as we are flesh and blood – nothing about us is solid or enduring. And that is about all we can know with certainty!
This is the basis for the idea of “non self”; maybe the most difficult buddhist idea to comprehend for beginning partitioners of mindfulness. After all, we are all separate people, so the subtlety of our actions, our experiences even our relationships
as occurring in a context of “non self” can be mystifying.
Sadly some religious historians who understand little about the sage we call the Buddha and the depth of his wisdom about human existence, interpret the teachings on non-self to mean that the teachings are somehow nihilistic. Nothing is farther from the truth.
It does not help that psychologists developed a huge body of theory concerning human development and individuation that is ￼in sharp contrast to buddhist teaching. Psychoanalytical writings (and personality viewed as consisting of separate components: id, ego and super ego) have deeply influenced our ideas about ourselves. Powerful though Freudian thinking may be in shaping our concept of man in western culture, it is basically just one theory, one worldview.
If you dissect the body- or the brain – there is “no self organ”. So who am I.. and do I have a distinct unchangeable identity? I know I am not who I was yesterday, never mind a decade ago. What about you? Looking back on your life, you see how life has formed you and keeps moulding who you are today? From the moment of our birth to the moment we die we adapt to our environment. We suffer when we can not adapt to changing circumstances. If we talk about “me, myself or I”- we see that this person is constantly changing.
Of course, each of us possesses unique genetic characteristics that develop over time, are shaped through our bonds with our families and by our contact with others. As unique individuals, we resonate with others through our capacity for empathy. When we feel connected to whomever or whatever we care about, deep emotions can emerge that feel like there is a solid entity inside. But the more I examine this notion about myself, the more I see it as an illusion.
Humanity is delightfully diverse and ever changing! Such richness in a multiplicity of talents, personalities and the like among humans! Just like the flowers in my garden – different colours, textures, growth patterns, life spans, ways of manifesting, etcetera. Some of us manifest our inner potential easily, some of us may be disconnected from ourselves. How we are in the world depends on causes and conditions that have shaped our lives; such as our personality, our temperament, our intellect and our early relationships . Our traits develop with support from trusted and significant others. Many of us have weathered turbulent times and survived adversity that others can not imagine. Yet we are all destined to grow, mature, age and decline and eventually die. Our experiences can shape us for the better or for the worse.
Just as November comes, and flowers in our gardens will wither as they were designed to do; in the end, our bodies and minds succumb to the same fate – there is no real choice, it is a question of when and how it will unfold – the withering I mean.. All that remains is to choose how we will direct our energies given the unpredictability of our world. As I see it, we can choose one of the following positions in an uncertain world:
1. We can take in whatever “good in life” is available right now. This approach can delight when we allow events to simply unfold. Taking advantage of present opportunities, we can live in the moment, aware of the ebb and flow of things, not waiting until some other time when we imagine we may be more inclined to enjoy what is already here. It means being able to think out of the box to recognize ay opportunity for present moment joy and delight.
In Rabindranath Tagore’s words:
￼“From dawn till dusk I sit here before my door, and I know that of a sudden the happy moment will arrive when I shall see.
In the meanwhile I smile and I sing all alone. In the meanwhile the air is filling with the perfume of promise.”
Sometimes we have difficulty sensing promise in the air- and end up throwing discrimination to the wind. Instead, indiscriminate or compulsive ways of being with our experience or with the world takes over. Gambling or over eating have this compulsive quality. I know I can not go to buffet Chinese restaurants because I will be compelled to keep eating and consume what my eyes are wanting rather than my body is able to digest without causing a stomach ache. Striving and forcing an experience rather than waiting and seeing what arises can deplete our enjoyment of things! Grabbing onto life experience spoils our pleasure when we can’t monitor what is enough and let go.
2. Another pattern of dealing in an uncertain world takes the form of giving in to our fears, opting out and choosing to play it safe with life. Thinking ourselves not capable of much, or when nothing really satisfies, we may give up and stop pursuing goals. Capitulating to pain, to failure, we may give up believing in the possibility of joy, of discovery& delight, or in ease and contentment . This mind state becomes a serious obstacle to our peace and contentment. Besides confining us to live on the sidelines, this attitude deprives the world of our unique talents. Yet the feeling of hopelessness can be all too familiar. When I get into this mind frame, I feel depleted and lost.
Tagore’s words resonate: “I came out alone on my way to my tryst. But who is this that follows me in the silent dark?
I move aside to avoid his presence but I escape him not.
He makes the dust rise from the earth in his swagger; he adds his loud voice to every word that I utter.
He is my own little self, my lord, he knows no shame; but I am ashamed to come to the thy door in his company.”
Ah the self doubt, the weight of shame and insecurity, the fear of not measuring up! Dismayed when the vibrant flavour of life is replaced by another less desirable feeling, the best I could do is slow down and monitor my mood until this too changes. I can seek out some help, some calming practice or just plain give up something I can not handle at this moment. Letting go and trusting that this unpleasant mood will pass has become my mainstay when I feel depleted in this way.
3. Mindfulness practice opens another doorway on life. Once we have been on the mindful path for a while we start to pay attention to the “music within”. Learning how not to react in habitual ways, we centre ourselves using one of our calming practices, such as mindful meditation. Inserting this pause and stopping while letting difficult feelings emotions or pain just flow through, is a gateway to coming to terms with what is actually possible right now. This is a powerful way to reclaim our optimism and wellbeing. Opening to the rich fabric of life and to all living things throbbing with energy – lifts us up and allows us to ease into the present moment. That is where our practice leads – to witnessing life passing through us!
￼A teacher can introduce you to the melody but you have to be willing to sing the music of mindfulness.
Some people have asked if mindfulness is a spiritual practice or a branch of psychology? Perhaps the answer is that it depends on what your own needs are or what you take away from your practice. Many people have reservations about mindfulness because they already have what they feel is their religious/ spiritual path. Mindfulness is not incompatible with any affiliation with formal religious practice. Authentic spirituality is inclusive not exclusive. From our spiritual sensibilities, we recognize the limits of this human life we have been generously given by our parents, their parents, their parents’ parents. Mindfulness reminds me to take good care of the abundant natural resources right here in this moment. When we cultivate taking care of others as ourselves, we resonate with the music of eternity – life coming and going. A maturing meditation practice does that for us. You will find this unfolding uniquely in your own personal life once you can sustain your practice.
Mindfulness practice is straightforward, not mysterious. But it is a precious seed needing cultivation. I have often been asked “If we are not suffering in this moment, why do we practice?” Maybe the answer is because we know we will be suffering sometime down the line. Maybe because seeing the truth about this world brings sorrow to our hearts. Whatever your view or path, whoever you are, you can grow stronger from your meditation practice.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Wild Geese: Mary Oliver
Take a look at an interesting little experiment (the link below) showing that meditation practice may indeed heighten our humanness through developing empathy. After all, we can aim higher than just wanting to benefit ourselves from mindfulness practice. We can share and give to others and make this a better world. Imagine, just by sitting for a few minutes in silence on our chair or cushion every day. WOW… This is Awesome… !